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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Small Object of Toys

My son has an assignment for an English class to write about objects he remembers from his childhood that still have meaning for him today. In helping him research what objects he might want to include, I started remembering things from my own childhood.

When I was young, stuffed animals were very important to me. I had a teddy bear that I got for Christmas when I was two years old that I still have in a box upstairs. My younger sister got one at the same time, but on one of our family’s long car trips she stuffed it out the window along the highway somewhere in Central California. That night she cried herself to sleep, so my parents had to buy her a stuffed animal replacement. She chose a tiger. That’s my sister: fierce.

My bear went for a very long time without a name. When the bear was around ten years old I finally named him Edward. I don’t know where that name came from. He had a floppy head by that time because the sawdust compacted in his head and body and seemed to leave his neck empty. When I was around eight, my brother Larry and I for some odd reason decided to be surgeons and perform a neck operation on the bear. We tried to put more stuffing in, and I can’t remember what we used since sawdust wasn’t available to us. Rags I think. Larry was the one who got to use the scissors, but I got to use the needle and thread and sew the bear back together with Mom’s heavy white embroidery thread. After that I usually tied a little scarf around Edward’s neck to hide the scar and the clumsy stitches.

I had a lot of stuffed toys over the years. When Walt Disney’s original 101 Dalmatians came out, I was given a stuffed Dalmatian puppy for my birthday. His name was Lucky. He wasn’t as easy to play with as I had hoped because he was lying down, and it was hard to pretend he was running and jumping about when his paws were permanently tucked under him.

When I was still quite young, but just old enough to know better, I stole a toy dog from a store when we were on a vacation with my aunt. I had asked my mother if I could have it, but she had not given me much of an answer. I knew if she had said “No” I must not ask again, but she hadn’t said the word “No.” It was a black French poodle, beautifully made, and I felt I couldn’t live without her. I took her in my hand and held her against my side as I followed my mother and my aunt out of the store. Then as we walked up the street, I pretended to find that I was still holding the dog. I held it out to my mother, silently pleading to keep it. My aunt interceded for me and for once my mother gave in, to my complete surprise. I had been expecting to get into huge trouble. But she gave me the dollar and change that it cost and I ran back into the store and paid for it. My relatives helped me come up with a suitable French name for the dog. She became Giselle, and I rarely wanted to play with her, lest she get dirty. I wanted her to stay as perfect as I felt she was when I first saw her. She was really beautiful. I was so overwhelmed with my amazing and undeserved victory in acquiring her that I never stole anything again.

I had a few dolls, but I didn’t play very much with dolls. I had a bride doll with black hair and blue eyes. She was very beautiful, and her dress was exquisite, but at the time I got her I didn’t appreciate the fine quality of this gift. I also got a Barbie doll, one with a black ponytail hairdo wearing a black-and-white zebra-striped strapless bathing suit. She had little rings in her ears and red painted toenails and fingernails. My mother and my best friend’s mother made a lot of clothes for that Barbie, and my best friend and I did play Barbies a lot for at least two or three summers. I got another Barbie a few years later, one with a blonde-bubble hairdo who wore a red bathing suit and had pearl earrings. There was a picture on her box of the evening gown of my friend’s and my dreams. It was black, strapless, extremely fitted down past the knee, and then it had a flared section to the floor, made of net and tulle or something like that. Barbie wore it with elbow-length black gloves, and from one hand dangled a dark pink scarf or large handkerchief or something. She stood behind a microphone attached to a floor stand, and we fantasized about becoming radio announcers and wearing a dress like that. We had no idea of the singular inappropriateness of that dress for the work we envisioned. I don’t know why we didn’t think of Barbie as an entertainer in a nightclub, where her outfit would have fit in.

I had a baby doll, but my friends and I didn’t play much with the baby dolls we all got one year. They were interesting for a few months, but not very long that I remember. One problem for me with playing with dolls was the propensity of my older brothers to take my dolls and subject them to imaginary tortures, which went too far in one instance. My brothers and one of their friends stole some of the fathers’ razor blades and built themselves a small working guillotine. They used it to behead their plastic army men and their model dinosaurs and whatever else occurred to them. They stole our dolls and used them as victims. When they took our Barbie dolls and beheaded them, they got into an awful lot of trouble. But we somehow felt that we didn’t want to play with any dolls so much after that.

I had a little porcelain girl in a gown that I thought was very beautiful. I had some interest in pretty clothes, but since in real life my clothes were almost all hand-me-downs or awkward homemade things, I didn’t develop an interest in good clothes until later in life. This has turned into an economy, allowing me to use my money for travel instead.

I began to prefer my horses to any other toys soon after the guillotine episode. I had always been a tomboy and actually wished I were a horse. My friends and I played horses all the time. When we were in grammar school and a new school was built that we could walk to instead of having to take the bus, we pretended to ride our imaginary horses to school and home. At school we pretended our horses spent their time on the playground and were waiting for us to come out to recess or for the lunch break. Each of us had about five or six horses that we “owned.”

My best friend’s older sister, who could draw really well, had us write out descriptions of each of our horses, and she made us each a booklet with drawings and the vital statistics of each horse we had. (She did this for her sister, for me, for my sister, and for the other two sisters who were our other best friends. What a kind girl! I never realized until I was much older what an extraordinary person she must have been.)

We had been acquiring those Breyer plastic horses that were very popular in the 1960s. We each had a family of Arabians in different colors. Mine were appaloosas, my sister’s were white, and I think my best friend’s were palominos. Somebody had the bays, and somebody else had chestnuts. Later I got a set of running dapple greys. They were the most beautiful models I could imagine. My first horse, the appaloosa foal, soon broke a leg, and then another, and then its tail broke off. We played hard with these toys. My dad wrapped the legs with black electrician’s tape that blended in well enough with my horse’s markings. But the tail was soon lost.

By that time my cousins had acquired a real Arabian horse, a bay with a lovely black mane and tail, and they cut some horse hair to make a tail for my foal. Then one of the broken legs got lost. We took a twig from one of the walnut trees and made a wooden leg, wrapped with the black electrician’s tape. That foal was really a battered looking little thing, and somebody gave me a new one to replace it. But somehow I couldn’t replace it, really. It went into a drawer, wrapped in an old shirt, and when I gave away the rest of the model horses, it stayed wrapped in that shirt in the drawer. I still have it.

Models were replaced by encounters with real horses. I soon found out that I had an unfortunately timid nature around horses that they could sense. As a pre-teen I could ride only extremely gentle horses, and even the gentle ones sometimes tried tricks on me.

My sister eventually acquired her own horse, and when I came home from college I met him. He had been neglected and could be quite bad tempered. My sister worked hard with him to retrain him and gentle him down. He wasn’t bad, he just had been on his own for about five years, doing nothing but eating and playing by himself.

Barn in the background down the hill
He was intent on killing my cat, who teased him unmercifully by walking into his corral and waiting until he came charging over with death in his eyes, ears flat, teeth bared, hooves flying, when the cat would get up and stroll back under the fence and then sit licking her paw, knowing she was just out of reach of the furious horse. The dogs were always careful around this horse. I was home for the Christmas vacation when I went down a couple times to feed him for my sister who was busy with something, I had to get over my timid nature quickly. I went into the little room where the feed was and didn’t think to shut the door. The horse came in after me just as I got the lid off the huge metal can (a garbage can) full of molasses grain mash. He laid his ears back, bared his teeth and was intent on bullying me into letting him have full access to that open can. I had the garbage can lid in my hand, held like a shield, and whammed him in the side of the head with it. He backed out of the room and went bucking across the corral. He was mad but didn’t come back until I rattled his grain bucket and set it down next to his flake of hay. I got out of the corral before he came back across it to the feed.

Later on Christmas day when my sister saddled and bridled him and let me ride him first, he behaved well. Then my brother Larry rode him, and finally my sister took her turn. By that time he’d had enough of behaving, and he bucked and bucked. He couldn’t unseat my sister, but he did manage to hit her in the face with his head as he flung it around, and she had a huge bruise on half of her face. She was mad at him then! She yelled at him, and he settled down. He didn’t like her to yell at him.

Eventually my sister had him trained well enough that she sold him to a nine-year-old girl who wanted him for her 4-H Club project. We saw him later on, and he was the best-trained horse you ever saw. He was like a very large dog, willing to do anything that little girl asked.

I don’t know what to say about all these things by way of conclusion.

I suppose I anthropomorphized some of my toys to the point that I couldn’t get rid of them even when I was moving a lot and had little storage space in which to save things. I still have the bear, the broken foal, and the little girl in the pretty gown.

I would still have the Barbie dolls (the ones that didn’t get beheaded), but after I got married, the Barbie collection disappeared under slightly mysterious circumstances involving my teenage step daughter and one of our interminable arguments over her allowance. Ah well. I love my step daughter a lot more than I ever loved those Barbies. (The Barbie dolls never spoke to me the way the bear and the foal and the green-gowned girl did . . .) Also, my step daughter is priceless.

I suppose my childhood objects all helped me to properly value the things of adulthood, especially the permanent relationships. I hope I know now how very valuable my permanent relationships are, and always will be.

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